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OtterSummer 8.11-Torchy-Feely

As we pulled away from Wayne and Eileen’s, The Grand Otter assumed her usual traveling position: ear buds firmly in place, eyes half-closed, sitting upright yet seemingly semi-conscious in the back seat. The Muse and I try to engage her in conversation, but each question requires an emphatic arm wave to elicit any response. She’s plugged in and must unplug before, after we repeat the question, she can reply with a one-word phrase sounding almost but not entirely unlike a word. “Ugg.”

The naive might conclude that she’s refusing to associate with her loving, caring grandparents, and I admit that her conversational style can feel damned off-putting. I point out Kansas City’s lovely suspension bridge over the Missouri, and receive the usual mumble along with a brief tirade opposing high bridges over wide water. I’d like to hold forth on the historical significance of KC’s lovely downtown, but The Otter might as well be elsewhere.

The first day out, she’d suggested that we plug her iPod into the car’s futuristic sound system so we could all hear what she was privately piping into her brain. I declined then because we had not yet figured out how to hook external sources to the danged thing. Yesterday, The Muse happened to be talking with the zoom car’s previous owner and asked for a clue or two, then she started experimenting. While I piloted our little one-cart caravan through the most lovely rolling countryside—day lilies gracing ditches and queen anne’s lace, black-eyed susan, and blooming thistle coloring the roadside, and the smell of freshly-mown sweet grass flooding in through the air conditioning vents—The Muse punched buttons and flipped switches. The user interface of this sound system seems about as friendly as the typical lunar module’s dashboard, but she somehow discovered the proper complicated sequence, and a podcast began, and even played for a minute before our Muse asked if we could just ride in silence for a while. She’d just finished an upsetting conference call meeting (being on vacation no longer excludes her from attending weekly meetings), and she needed some reflection time.

These times, I’m glad that The Grand Otter’s immersed in her private isolation chamber. The Muse and I can speak freely without concern that our conversation might bore or upset The Otter. Neither of us would ever consider asking her to plug her ears to protect her from our mumblings, but her self-imposed exile works to both of our advantages sometimes.

The Muse often leaves these meetings upset at their sheer banality. The usual gang performs their usual passion play, shoving her program a couple of giant steps backwards. The formal leadership usually placates in response, and The Muse, along with every other sentient participant gnaws her tongue after yet another of her nudges fails to correct trajectory. She needs some time to process the proceedings: her reaction as well as the likely reactions of the system to the play. She inevitably decides that the universe is yet again working exactly as it should be working, that the short-sighted decision might well fuel a later flash of enlightenment, though backwards always seems like one heck of a way to make progress. And during these internal debates, she needs my forehead to bounce speculations off of. It’s often a messy, potentially upsetting exchange, and I’m pleased that nobody needs to translate its intricacies over car cruising noise to anyone in the backseat.

The day grew long as our side road fed into an Interstate, and our objective seemed hopelessly out of reach as the afternoon shrunk after we crossed the time zone line somewhere in Indiana. As we entered Kentucky after a fueling stop, The Otter repeated her earlier request to connect her iPod to the sound system, but I deflected, finding a bluegrass station on the dial. I thought that music might better soundtrack our passage into horse country, but both The Muse and The Otter disagreed. The Muse prefers classic rock, turned up way too loud. The Otter, her private library, which I suspected was filled with some cacophonous crap.

Finally, as we neared Louisville, passing those lovely limestone road cuts on our way down into the Ohio river valley, I relented. The Muse hooked up The Otter’s iPod, and we shared what had been playing into The Otter’s head since we left South Dakota. As we crossed the Ohio, I turned down the sound to reflect, this time without the arm waving because our Otter was unplugged, that she surprisingly preferred torch songs. Every one of the four tracks we’d shared qualified as torchy, one of those sing-your-heart-out ballads sometimes derided as syrupy. No boringly repetitive percussion. No meaninglessly monotonous rhymes. Stories. Broken hearts. Sadder but wiser ex-lover testimonies. The kind of songs that elicit a knowing nod and a secretly wiped-away tear.

”Of course, David! That’s why I want to learn how to sing your songs this summer; because they’re all torchy, too,” replied The Otter, using her newly-acquired classification. Her pink hair and indifferent-seeming slouch suggests otherwise, but there’s a Broadway-quality sensibility seething inside her. She must be caring deeply and thinking seriously if her soundtrack’s all torchy-feely.

How could anyone ever know another’s soundtrack? In this world of personal audio equipment, our music’s become almost anti-social. We no longer share our songs but more often hoard them. Love songs sung to an absorbent mirror, touching nobody else. How could anyone ever know? The torchy-feely listeners do not drive with their windows rolled down, back seat replaced with thumping woofers to annoy every other human within a cubic furlong. We’re crying inside, in love with the very expression of love gone wrong after seeming so very right. We’re much more lively and alive than we seem.

I’m winding my watch this morning, reflecting on the many presuppositions I overlay onto my experience. I trust my eyes too much and my ears too little. I could imagine anything I choose when I cannot hear a thing. Maybe everyone on the metro train has always been mentally down on one knee, hand reaching out through blinding spotlights, belting out some smoke-gets-in-your-eyes tear-jerker to the rest of the world in their head while I imagined they were syncopating to some crap rhythm rhyme scheme or wimping out to some newscast.

And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.

©2013 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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